Ray Collier Country Diary – Eider Duck

At this time of  the year  the eider duck numbers in the Moray Firth start to build up for the winter months.  Eiders are classed in the  group called seaducks and the Moray Firth is of international importance for the numbers of these fascinating ducks.  As the name suggests they  are mainly seen, as far as the winter months are concerned, on the coasts.  These coastal sites may vary from the exposed headlands off Tarbetness to small flocks on the outer Beauly Firth.   Later in the  year there is also a good chance of seeing some of the other seaducks such as common and velvet scoters and  long-tailed ducks.  The eider is the commonest with a regular wintering population of around 64,000 in Scotland which is around 75% of the UK numbers.    To see a large flock of eiders, often  diving after shellfish such as mussels, is one of the most evocative sights of the winter as far as the coast is concerned.

My favourite place to see them is either Loch Fleet near Golspie,  Whiteness Head just east of Inverness or Burghead further along the  coast to the east.   The  last time I was at Burghead there were plenty of velvet and common scoters plus long-tailed ducks on the sea.  They were mainly  quite  close to the shore as there was a violent storm way out in the firth.  The only problem was the waves even close to the shore but once a flock of any of the ducks was picked up in the swell they could easily be seen.  The eiders in such conditions seem to be more affected by the rough seas than the other seaducks.  Up to about 30 of them had sought the shelter of the Burghead Harbour with a couple even inside the harbour amongst the tied up fishing boats.  The majority were on the seawall just inside the harbour entrance and it was a good chance to look at the various stages in their plumage.  There were a few males in the their summer breeding dress and the apple green feathering on their napes looked  a picture in the bright lighting.  The photograph shows some males in their winter   plumage with the male on the left in full breeding dress.

One of the features of last  winter at Burghead for several weeks was the presence of  a king eider amongst the flocks of eiders.  It could well have been a young bird as it was slowly moulting into its dramatic summer plumage.     The numbers recorded each winter varies but the maximum each year  may well be ten and in some years less so it is a great rarity.   The plumage is spectacular as although its body is generally black with a white oval patch near the tail its breast head and neck are an unusual combination of colours.   The head is mostly blue contrasting with the red beak that has a prominent red bulge on the upper part.   The face is pale green contrasting with the  salmon pink breast.  A reasonable view also shows two black feathers that form small “sails” on its back.  One of the most spectacular of all the ducks.  The female, in common with most other ducks, is drab in comparison.  This helps to camouflage them when they are on their nest that with many duck species is on the ground.